sarazanmai: first impressions

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Four years after wrapping Yurikuma Arashi, showrunner Kunihiko Ikuhara returns with Sarazanmai. Prior to release, enigmatic trailers teased a combination of live action photography and animation, as well as a direct interest in human connection. A supplementary manga series, Reo to Mabu, also ran in the BL magazine: RUTILE. The premiere firmly plants itself within the Ikuni canon with a potpourri of familiar devices. Yet, in true Ikuhara fashion, no amount of preparation can fully dull the sensory overload, you just have  to enjoy the ride.

The series opens with a sequence of protagonist Kazu running through Tokyo streets, eventually crossing over Azumabashi bridge. Meanwhile, Kazu’s voiceover speaks of a world full of connection. As the camera pans over the bridge, one considers the myth of the nearby shrine it takes its name from: the calls of Prince Yamato Take for his wife (azuma translates to “my wife”) who sacrifices herself to kami to ensure her husband’s safe passage through the sea. Kazu hears a voice call his name and later says aloud, “I can’t let myself lose this connection again”. What past is he running from? Immediately, I feel shades of Penguindrum: will this series be approaching the familiar grounds of repressed memories and familial trauma going forward?

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Technology permeates the Sarazanmai world. Text messages glare on cell phones and characters speak of their need to document their lives to an online connection. In-world idol, Sara, appears on television in a buzzing city center delivering her “Lucky Selfie TV Fortune” while a scrolling bar tells the audience that normal humans cannot see her, her broadcast only visible to the princes with whom she would like to forge a connection with. Whereas these characters vocally suggest their yearning for a connection, there is a dissonance suggested as they use these apparent communicative devices self-interestedly. While Sara tells her audience to send selfies to their “special one” on-screen we see Kazu do so seemingly one-sidedly, singularly focused on completing his mission whilst also ignoring the world around him (to Toi’s chagrin). The presence of Amazon, sorry “Kappazon” boxes, also introduces an element of possession into the technological mix as Enta is chastised by his sister for seemingly wasting money again while Kazuki carries his box eternally as though an extension of self.

Modernity at the forefront of the series seemingly clashes with historical imagery in its background. As our human protagonists take center, one could almost miss the “mob” characters that populate their surroundings. Their blank designs speak to their unscrupulousness, differentiating them from the characters whom the narrative takes interest in. Yet, they are also seemingly of another time with their distinctly Edo-period hairstyles sparking dissonance with the contemporary fashions of our leads. Yet, the kappa statues that also populate each street and the lantern street lights add to this sense of a world with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. There is a sense of timelessness as the world of Sarazanmai grounds itself in a mixed bag of familiarity and unfamiliarity. As an extension of its direct interest in connection, why is that we aren’t interested in the connections that can be forged with these background characters? The distinction of Sara-described “princes” from stock characters suggests a Yurikuma Arashi-like interest in considering the individual in a collective space. This is even further distinguished as our protagonists bridge realms beyond human.

Kappa play a particularly unique role in the series. Ikuni series often present unique transformations and yet, not much can compare to frog-like demons extracting balls from our heroes’ butts. As Zach Davidson explains, this is emblematic of Edo-era conceptions of kappa. While Sarazanmai presents frog-like kappa familiar from more recent representations, their extraction abilities echo earlier mythos of human consumption. This suggestion of consumption runs throughout the premiere not only through the presence of shirikodama but also in Sara’s constant suffixing of her sentences with dish.

Consumption works in tandem with the premiere’s perception of desire. While characters openly yearn to connect with their “special one”, desire operates solitarily. Desire is meant to be concealed, not shared. As such, Kazuki is shown literally boxing his desires, carrying with them eternally yet afraid for this secret part of him to be revealed to others. Amidst the premiere’s baddy busting climax, we see Kazu chastise the box villain for having a secret that could get him in trouble. Yet, when his own secret is out the box, Kazu experiences that same fear. While his friend Enta contends he’d accept his friend no matter what, Kazu suggests this desire is the connection between himself and “Harukappa”. We later see Reo and Mabu extracting desires as part of a post-credits scene. Want more so than connections seem to drive the world of Sarazanmai. Going forward we may see how far our characters will go to sustain this desire.

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